MARY’S DAIRY DIARY - FEBRUARY 2012
We had daffodils at New Year, grass growing, birds sounding spring-like. The winter has still got some bite, but every succeeding day has the sun higher, the day longer, driving winter down to the bottom of the year as we slowly and surely climb out. Tiny signs of growth peep out - snowdrops, so modest and quiet, little red female hazel flowers, and the lambs’ tails like male flowers that have been slowly developing and lengthening, suddenly bursting out. Oak flowers give a purple look to the woodland on the other side of the valley, darker and richer on the ends of the twigs. I saw a buzzard sit quietly on a post on a tree guard for some apple trees we planted. Suddenly he dropped heavily on a clump of grass only four feet below, then laboured away in his heavy flight with a little speck in his talons. One bird’s feast is one vole’s spring gone.
CROPS - the warm winter has kept grass growing on the headlands, and deer haven’t hammered any crop too much, although there are plenty of bitten leaves. On the wheat, that keeps mildews down, as new growth is clean, just as long as the crop can just keep ahead of the grazing. There are deer hoof prints every maybe 18 inches; in hard winters, I’ve seen them every 6 inches, and the crops just can’t keep pace with the nibbling.
GRASS - the grass growth depends on soil temperature, and also air temperature. It won’t grow if its feet are too chilly, and then soft growth can be burnt off in a sharp frost or a biting wind. We usually have a cold few days that brings grass growth down to a crawl - 5kgs, the weight of 5 bags of flour across somewhere the size of a football pitch a day - even going backwards in a sharp frost as growth gets freeze dried. Then by the end of the month, the whole great stampede of growth will just be gathering pace just as cows calve down and want feeding. Our farm team make best use of the grass available throughout the season, where possible, we want the cows to graze themselves rather than the expensive process of making, storing and feeding silage. The team recently had their expertise recognised, finishing runners up in the Grazing category of the Mole Valley Farmers, Forage for Profit Awards 2012.
COWS - This year, we’ve delayed calving, after the last two years of hard winters had the cows pecking away, turning pasture to lawns. Cows need to wrap grass round their tongues to bite it, so if the grass gets too short they have to work much harder to get their food, and when they’ve just calved, a girl doesn’t want to struggle. Calving later, the grass will be easier to harvest for them.
CALVING - The cows calve, as far as possible outside as it’s cleaner and more private for them. The calf starts the cow milking, those first unbelievable steps, driven to find that teat by instinct. They stagger their way around their mothers, butting their heads, helped by a gentle nudge in the right direction (no milk between my front legs). Suddenly and it looks randomly, they’ll touch a little tongue on a teat and bang, we’re latched on, slurping noises and the palpable sound of relief from all sides. Sometimes you’ll get a heifer whose udder is a little tender and that first suck is a shock, but soon everyone realizes that the way to comfort is being suckled. Then that parting as we take the calves to their pens, cow and calf lost and bereft for such a short time, before their herd mates become their world.
MILKING - Then we bring the cows into the parlour, where they need to learn for the first time or remember for the older cows, that the milking machine will give the same relief. That’s where we are keen on more placid animals, as quite enough new stuff is happening for a heifer (first calving cow) for them to be flighty and untrusting of people - our faces are too close to their hooves for that to be fun. The work suddenly expands hugely - lots of animals inside, plus calving, night checks, tending calves and newly calved cows, lots of cows to parlour train and milk.
CALVES - We have to teach the calves how to suck from a pink rubber teat. It’s easiest to teach them in a shed: first they sit out of the way feeling orphaned, so it’s easier in a little pen. You go in, encourage her to get up and explore the interesting pink shape - come on baby, there’s something nice there, push her close enough to the teat, open your mouth, squirt of warm milk in, what’s that, latch on, and away we go. You can turn them from ‘where’s my mum?’ to a sassy calf in a day, so quick. Depending on weather, we’ll get calves outside as soon as we can - much cleaner and healthier, and take the mobile milk bar out to them with the buggy. Soon the buggy becomes the high point of the day, chasing after in, then twenty little tails waggling as they all slurp at once, and we just check everyone’s got a teat.
HEIFERS - We check the older calves and yearlings are growing on - for last year’s calves, the late winter is the time to check weights and feed on any that are a little light so they are big enough in May to go to the bull. At this stage, 3 months away, some look too small, but it is surprising how much they will grow. Most of them are starting to bull, frisk around and ride each other, showing they’ve reached puberty, but some of the heifers with a Montbeliarde sire are a little slower off the mark, keeping us waiting till the last minute (15 months). Oddly enough, Holsteins (we don’t have them, but are the standard dairy breed) can start bulling as young as 4 months, and no later than 10 months, which looks scary as it is far too young to conceive a calf.
CHEESE - At the beginning of the month, we are on one small vat, finding jobs to doing, repairing racks, washing cheeseboards, making lots of the little truckles for next Christmas. By the end of the month, the new milk starts pouring in, and every day the vat is deeper, so we’ll have a full vat, wondering when we’ll be on two vats and on. First it’s a relief to have more work, then we know it’s the long pull to the peak in May.
DEVON COUNTY SHOW - I’m very excited to have just been elected to be President of the Show this year: it’s the best party in Devon, and put on by farmers to show off farming and the countryside at its best to farmers and everyone else. It’s such an honour, and great to see how we can tell the tale of farming in ever more interesting ways.
RECIPE - We’ve been interviewing talented young students from Harper Adams University to show our cheese off to delis. We’ve been asking them what cheese they enjoy, and one, Emily Osborne, came up with this simple but enjoyable recipe. Mature Cheddar toasties: Briefly toast bread, then slice some Quickes Traditional Mature Cheddar and grill till soft. Add a splash of Worcestershire Sauce, then put back under the grill for a few seconds. Lovely as a snack or a light lunch with salad. The Worcestershire Sauce just adds another layer of flavour. Student cooking at its best!